At last we all get a look-in under the bonnet

“We shall have hats” – Christobel Kent in one of her favourites

For months, the bleak horizon of the pandemic desert offered not a ripple of promise to the wearily-trekking sybarite. Not until (was it a gaudy mirage?) the light and glitter of the crazy national caravan that’s Royal Ascot hove into view in June. On Instagram and TikTok, in the press and even on national news, dazzling confections surfaced: ruffled or gauzy, straw or felt, netted, veiled or bedecked with flowers. We shall have hats.

Never mind the new normal, give me the old abnormal. And if anything represents the joyous insanity that lurks beneath the skin of every British fashion addict, it is our passion for hats. For centuries, chapeaux, headpieces and bonnets ruled Britannia and half the globe, culminating in Schiaparelli collaborating with Dalí to put lobsters on the heads of royalty, and Loretta Young buying up every hat in Lilly Daché’s atelier.

Then the swinging sixties (and its rejection of all that was formal and uptight) sounded the hatter’s death knell. All over the world civilian headgear has been in decline ever since, give or take a Melbourne Cup. But in the British Isles, given half a chance and an Occasion, we still reach for a hat – or we did, before the pandemic. Covid has cost millions of lives worldwide, propelled us into stupendous debt, and left milliners sobbing into their toiles.

Eighteen months ago, Cheltenham Festival as a superspreader event was followed by a series of lockdowns and fluctuating can-we-can’t-we restrictions that put paid to the Occasion. For a year and a half, if you believe what you read in the papers, the world resorted to trackpants and Zoom collars. Not even the most inventive of fashion columnists recommended wearing a homburg or a fascinator to those online Panopto seminars. But it takes more than a pandemic to kill this passion: hat-wearing is not dead; it is simply planning its next move.

It could be the flipside of prevailing puritanism, but one of the most delicious of British kinks is a hat, shaded and mysterious or haughty and formal – its emblem a bowler-hatted city gent or a horsewoman in veil and stock. Then Covid made millinery go underground. Stephen Jones, the presiding genius of British hatters and ever a subversive, has declared he spent lockdown “dressed up like a bloody Christmas tree” in three-piece suit, gold cufflinks and “a major hat”. (His exquisite felt toque with the word C**TY spelled out in ruby crystals – an homage to The Colony Room’s Muriel Belcher, who greeted everyone “hello cunty!” – must come in handy now.)

Jones speaks for an irredeemably nose-thumbing nation. And now that spirit of anarchy is resurgent: a towering confection to block everyone’s view at a wedding, a galleon in full sail at the races and deely-boppers at a festival. Or that apotheosis of hat-wearing lunacy, the traffic cone that’s sported by every other hen and stag party parading down the British high street. When we want to celebrate, first we pop a cork, then we slap something on our heads. Hats represent our inventive genius, our surreal silliness and our irreverence, and they are very welcome back.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. She has lived in Essex, Modena, Florence and Cambridge and has written seventeen novels, ten of which are set in Italy. Her latest novel “The Widower” came out in May

Arts & Culture

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